SoCon Preview 2016-17

- Matt Cox

Projected Final Standings
1.      Chattanooga
2.    East Tennessee St.
      UNC Greensboro
      Western Carolina
10.    The Citadel


All Conference Awards

POY: Tre' McLean, Sr., Chattanooga
Coach of the Year: Wes Miller, UNC Greensboro
Newcomer of the Year:  Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Sr., East Tennessee St.
Freshman of the Year: Tre Clark, Furman


1.     Chattanooga

Key Returners:  Tre' McLean, Justin Tuoyo, Casey Jones, Greg Pryor
Key Losses:  Eric Robertson
Key Newcomers: Nat Dixon (JUCO), Trayvond Massenburg (JUCO), Makala Foreman, Rodney Chatman, David Jean-Baptiste


Postseason Prediction: Bubble-NIT

Talent: Check… Depth: Check... Experience: Check… Coaching: Check PLEASE

Thanks to an up-and-coming coaching prodigy in Matt McCall, Chattanooga fans everywhere have already forgotten about Will Wade’s departure to VCU prior to last season.  In his inaugural year at the helm, all McCall did was lead the Mocs to one of their best seasons in program history, racking up 29 wins and an automatic birth to the dance as a 12-seed.  While it's fair to say Wade deserves most of the credit for assembling the current roster, McCall managed to win 7 more games than his predecessor and did so without two time all conference performer Casey Jones, who now returns after sitting out all of last year with a medical redshirt.  Jones will join four other incumbent starters in what shapes up to be the most talented starting lineup in the SoCon.

What makes 'Nooga so tough to guard is their balance and unselfishness offensively, which all stems from four key seniors - Tre’ McLean, Johnathan Burroughs-Cook and Greg Pryor ,to go along with Jones.  There is no reliance on one single ball handler or playmaker, with Pryor, Jones, Burroughs-Cook and McLean all fully capable of beating their defender off the bounce, which opens countless drive and kick opportunities in their half-court offense.  The ball just never seems to stop moving, which puts defenders in perpetual scramble mode trying to close out to their man after providing off ball help.  All four perimeter guys are certainly comfortable stepping into an open three, but they tend to do most their damage attacking the rim off shot fakes and drives.

While Casey Jones and the array of guards/wings McCall has at his disposal will give opposing coaches fits, the real X-factor for this bunch is big Justin Tuoyo inside.  At 6’10, Tuoyo possesses power-6 conference size and athleticism, which is simply hard to find anywhere else in this league.  His shot-blocking ability is what anchors the entire defensive philosophy for the Mocs, which is built on extensive defensive ball pressure all over the floor.  Tuoyo covers up any and all perimeter mistakes defensively and is also a reliable safety valve at the back of the full court zone press.

While there are some emerging competitors lurking in this league (see East Tennessee St.), the talent, depth and experience of this roster make the Mocs the obvious pick to take down the league title.  It also helps that this well constructed ship is captained by the reigning coach of the year in Mr. McCall, who should only get better with time and more reps in the SoCon.


2.     East Tennessee St.

Key Returners: TJ Cromer
Key Losses: Ge’Lawn Guyn, Deuce Bello
Key Newcomers: Hanner Mosquera-Perea (Indiana transfer), Tevin Glass (Wichita St. transfer), Devontavius Payne (JUCO), Julian Walters (JUCO), David Burrell (JUCO)


Postseason Prediction: Bubble-NIT

While the Buccaneers may not have the abundance of riches that the defending champion Mocs possess, their rationale for a promising outlook this year is eerily similar.  Like 'Nooga, East Tenny St. will play almost exclusively upperclassmen this year, which is headlined by a leading POTY candidate in TJ Cromer.  Even though Cromer played with two other ball dominant guards in Deuce Bello and Ge’Lawn Guyn last year, he still managed to put up 15 points a contest, and did so in an efficient manner.  Now it’s Cromer's turn to run the show, alongside a supporting backcourt cast of AJ Merriweather and Desonta Bradford. While Bradford had a breakout sophomore campaign last year, Merriweather got bit with the almighty injury bug last January, which sidelined him for the rest of the season. Bradford, Merriweather and Cromer are all 40% marksmen from downtown, making them arguably the best shooting  backcourt in the SoCon (apologies to Wofford).  It’s probably worth mentioning two all-american JUCO guards in Devontavius Payne and Julian Walters, along with another JUCO wing in David Burrell, which give the Bucs one of the deepest backcourts in the conference.

Just as head coach Steve Forbes replenished the perimeter unit via the transfer wire last season, the frontline will now feature some new characters this year.  Forbes somehow managed to poach a pair of ex-Indiana bigs in Hanner Perea and Peter Jurkin over the past two seasons, each of whom were extremely highly regarded coming out of high school.  The size and length of Perea and Jurkin give Forbes the up-front presence he needs to compete with Chattanooga's Justin Tuoyo and other bigger frontlines.  Forbes also brings in additional interior depth in Wichita St. transfer Tevin Glass, who should be a nice rotational piece off-the-bench.  Last but not least is returning starter Isaac Banks, who got minimal help protecting the rim and controlling the boards last year.  Forbes admitted that he should've played Jurkin a bit more last season, but his conditioning and injury concerns forced Forbes to rely heavily on Banks, something that should not be an issue this season.

The defensive side of the ball was undeniably the achilles heal of the '15-'16 Buccaneers, much of which was simply due to a lack of bodies inside.  That concern appears to have been properly addressed this offseason, so expect East Tenny to once again challenge the Mocs for the league crown, especially if the interior defense trends in the right direction. 


3.     UNC Greensboro

Key Returners:  RJ White, Francis Alonso, Diante Baldwin
Key Losses:  Kayel Locke
Key Newcomers: Justin Jordan (Milwaukee transfer eligible in December)


Postseason Prediction: NIT - CBI/CIT

While many see Chattanooga and East Tennessee sitting on a perch of their own in the SoCon, UNC Greensboro may be knocking on the door sooner than expected.  After becoming one of the youngest coaches in college basketball history back in 2012, it’s hard to believe at only 33 years of age Wes Miller already has half a decade's worth of head coaching experience at the division 1 level.  The ex-North Carolina point guard has already shown signs of his learning development, specifically in the Spartans offensive style of play.  Over Miller’s first two seasons in Greensboro, his teams played as fast as anyone in the country, but the Spartans are now trending toward a slower brand of basketball.  The question is whether or not this change in philosophy will translate into more Ws - and as we all know, the "Xs and Os" are only as good as the "Jimmys and Joes", and fortunately for Miller, his returning roster looks to be sneaky good on paper.

The Spartans core features four returning starters, led by an emerging star in sophomore Francis Alonso.  Alonso put up ridiculously efficient numbers as a freshman last year, en route to becoming the all-time freshman scoring leader in program history.  His team best 39% clip from behind the arc on 200 attempts gave Miller an elite outside shooting threat he simply hasn’t had over his tenure in Greensboro.  The chemistry building between Alonso and point guard Diante Baldwin should only get better with each game, which gives the Spartans both a reliable ball handler and scorer on the perimeter.  Now throw in transfer acquisition Justin Jordan from Milwaukee and the Spartans backcourt is beginning to look quite potent.

Despite being relatively undersized on the interior, the 1-2 punch of Marvin Smith and RJ White proved to be a reliable rebounding tandem last year.  On the offensive side of the ball, the two mesh perfectly together, with White feasting around the rim and Smith extending the defense and creating mismatches at the 4 position.  Miller also has a nice asset in 6'11 Lloyd Burgess, who displayed some real promise in limited minutes as a freshman last year.

With some momentum carrying over from a nice finish to last season, all things seem to pointing up for the Spartans and Miller this year.  While they lack the talent and athleticism of both Chattanooga and East Tennessee St., they should be a lock to finish somewhere in the 3-6 range in the league standings.


4.     Wofford

Key Returners:  Fletcher Magee, Eric Garcia
Key Losses:  Spencer Collins, Justin Gordon
Key Newcomers: Dishon Lowery, Justin Tucker, Nathan Hoover, Kevon Tucker, Donovan Theme-Love, Michael Manning Jr.


Postseason Prediction: CBI/CIT

After a special '14-'15 campaign in which Wofford ran through the SoCon en route to a 28 win season and 12-seed in the NCAA tournament, the Terriers had to go back to the drawing board last year. The major question mark for head coach Mike Young was who would replace his steady floor general, Karl Cochran, who was a master at directing Young's motion offense for the better part of 3 years.  

The answer: Eric Garcia... 

Garcia has quietly emerged into one of the best guards in the conference, as evidenced by an uber-efficient offensive season last year.  Garcia's 5 dimes a game, along with a blistering hot 42% shooting performance from downtown, gave Young a renewed peace of mind that he had a sound solution at point.  However, not even Garcia's 121 O-Rating could top that of his backcourt mate Fletcher Magee, who casually led the entire league in both 3-point % AND FT% as a freshman last year.  Magee shot an unfathomable 52% from behind the arc in league play, to go along with a 93% clip from the charity stripe.  With Spencer Collins and Justin Gordon no longer in the picture, Garcia and Magee will certainly step into the middle of the spotlight this year, especially with few other scoring options left on this roster.

On the inside, Young will look to three primary bigs to rotate across the 4 and 5 spots - a pair of sophomores in Cameron Jackson and Matthew Pegram, along with senior Ryan Sawvell.  Jackson in particular presents a ton of athletic upside for this group, but he just couldn't stay on the floor last season due to injuries.  This frontline unit will have the tall task of replacing the production provided by CJ Neumann, who led the way for last Terriers' top 35 ranked defensive rebounding unit last year.

Just like most of Young's squads, the Terriers will likely go 10+ deep on most nights, which could pose an issue this season with a major influx of unproven freshmen.  Even Young himself admitted that it's a scary proposition relying a ton on 18-year olds who are only six months removed from high-school.  However, just the presence of Garcia and Magee should help mask some of the growing pains for the young Terriers, so I'm not overly concern with the youth here.  Like Greensboro, Wofford falls solidly within the SoCon's 2nd tier, which projects to be teams 3-6.


5.     Furman

Key Returners:  Devin Sibley, Kris Acox, Matt Rafferty
Key Losses:  Stephen Croone
Key Newcomers: Tre Clark


Postseason Prediction: None

The Paladins suffer a huge blow with the graduation of Stephen Croone, who finished his career as the 5th leading scorer in program history.  While his production will certainly be hard to replace by any one player, the area where Furman should actually improve with Croone's departure is outside shooting.  Croone simply didn't knock down 3-pointers consistently last season (27% from 3) and with those 165 attempts likely to be spread around more consistent marksmen this year (see Daniel Fowler and John Davis), expect Furman to drastically improve on their 312th nationally ranked 3-pt team shooting clip of 32%.  

Head coach Niko Medved brings back some some nice pieces, both in the backcourt and on the frontline.  The new floor leader on the perimeter will be Devin Sibley, who did a nice job last year complementing the scoring and playmaking that Croone provided.  Like Croone, Sibley is a drive-first scorer and an efficient finisher around the rim, but he'll need to step up into a facilitator role this year and consistently find Fowler and Davis for open looks from 3.

A pair of forwards anchor a solid frontcourt unit, which features the Icelandic Kris Acox and non-Icelandic Matt Rafferty.  Both Acox and Rafferty were monsters on the boards last season and provided solid rim protection at the back of Young's pressure-oriented defense.  Despite being relatively undersized at 6'6 and 6'8 respectively, the Acox Rafferty duo have proven they can hold their own against anybody in this league - just ask Chattanooga and East Tennessee St., both of whom were clipped a year ago by the Paladins.

The one outstanding concern for this Furman group is the health status of Rafferty, who is currently dealing with a back injury.  Assuming he and Acox can both stay healthy for the better part of the season, add Furman to that 2nd tier group of teams 3-6 in the SoCon.


6.     Mercer

Key Returners:  Stephon Jelks
Key Losses:  Jestin Lewis, Phillip Leonard
Key Newcomers: Darius Roy, Ross Cummings, JJ N’Ganga (Gonzaga transfer)


Postseason Prediction: None

Our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to the Mercer basketball family, who dealt with, and continue to deal with, one of the most unfathomable tragedies in recent memory when Jibiri Bryan was murdered last February.  While wins and losses don’t hold a candle to the importance of Bryan’s life, it surely played a part in the Bears’ late season collapse.  If the death of Bryan wasn’t enough of an off the court distraction, key contributors Jestin Lewis and Desmond Ringer were also suspended from the team soon after.  While the xs and os analysis is no doubt important, the mental fortitude of the returning players will truly determine the destiny of Mercer’s season this year. 

Head coach Bob Hoffman returns an excellent junior class, led by perhaps the most underrated player in the league in Stephon Jelks.  Built like a linebacker at 6’6 230 pounds, Jelks is a one man wrecking crew on both the offensive and defensive glass. He’ll be joined in the paint by another stout rebounder and rim protector in Desmond Ringer, who actually led this Mercer team in field goal percentage last season.  It’s quite impressive how effective the Bears were at limiting opponents 2nd shot opportunities, given how frequently Hoffman plays zone and how susceptible traditional zone looks are to being gashed on the boards.  The rest of the interior unit includes a pair of towers in redshirt senior Andrew Fishler, and incoming Gonzaga transfer JJ N’Ganga, each of whom should provide some additional depth up front.

The backcourt is where the questions lie for Hoffman, who loses two critical pieces in floor leader Phillip Leonard and a reliable outside shooter in Jestin Lewis.  The attention now shifts to Jordan Strawberry and Ethan Stair, who will need bring reliable ball handling and consistent long range shooting, neither of which were strengths for Mercer a  year ago.   

Given the roller coaster that was the Mercer Bears season last year, it’s almost impossible to predict what will happen with this squad. On February 6th, Mercer found themselves knocking on the door of a league title, sitting at 18-6 overall and 8-3 in league play.  They then proceeded to lose 9 of their last ten games, in which their only win came against the league doormat Citadel by just two points.  Hoffman has only finished under .500 twice during his tenure at Mercer, but I fear a continuation of the deflated play that persisted for the final two months of last season.


7.     Samford

Key Returners:  Christen Cunningham, Wyatt Walker
Key Losses:  Darius Jones-Gibson
Key Newcomers: Terry Brutus (Ole Miss transfer), Demetrius Dyson (UMass transfer), Alex Thompson (Auburn transfer), Josh Sharkey


Postseason Prediction: None

Samford kicks off our third and final tier of the SoCon, which actually features a few interesting case studies.  The Bulldogs are coached by Scott Padgett, who most basketball junkies will remember from his playing days at Kentucky in the late 90s.  He was actually an assistant at UK for a year back in 2010 and now enters his third season as the top dog on the sidelines for Samford.  His system is heavily reliant on forcing easy offense off of defensive pressure, which was spearheaded by a solid 1-2 backcourt punch in Christen Cunningham and Darius Jones-Gibson.  DJG graduates, which means even more of the defensive disruption and offensive penetration duties will lie on Cunningham this year.  Padgett will need some immediate production from a few newcomers on the perimeter, including freshman Josh Sharkey and UMass transfer Demetrius Dyson.  Dyson is certainly used to playing in a similar in-your-face pressure defensive system from his days at UMass, so he should fit in nicely here.

While Cunningham will likely draw most of the attention from opposing defenses, Padgett is realizing he may have a gem of a big emerging in sophomore Wyatt Walker.  At 6'9 230 pounds, Walker was the Bulldogs most efficient offensive player last season, and by far their best rebounder on a per minute basis.  He shot a blistering 60% from the floor and knocked down a solid 71% of his 100+ free throw attempts.  Expect even bigger strides in his offensive skill set development this year, which could give Padgett the reliable 2nd scoring option he needs to support Cunningham.

In year three of the David Padgett era, the Samford program seems to be headed in the right direction.  However, the loss of Jones-Gibson, along with two other starters in Marcus Johnson and Jamal Shabazz, may mean a slight regression could be in order for the Bulldogs, which keeps them on the outside looking in to the top 5-6 teams in this conference.


8.     VMI

Key Returners:  QJ Peterson, Julian Eleby
Key Losses:  Phillip Anglade
Key Newcomers: Tyler Creammer, Chuchu Enechionyia, Will Miller, Garrett Gilkeson, Keith Smith


Postseason Prediction: None

This is now the 2nd year of the post Duggar Baucom era at VMI, which is now led by ex-Penn State assistant Dan Earl.  Earl definitely slowed the pace down in his inaugural year at the helm last season, as the Keydets went from the fastest team in the country in 2015 to the 135th fastest team last year, per's adjusted tempo ranks.  With that said, VMI continued to live and die by the three ball, much of which lies in the shooting stroke of QJ Peterson, who jacked up 211 3s last season.  Peterson is no doubt a talented scorer, but is also a streaky shooter, which makes the Keydets highly leveraged on his ability to consistently make treys.  Peterson, along with fellow guard Julian Eleby, did make a combined 35% of their 3s a year ago, and with the ice cold shooting of Tim Marshall now gone, VMI should most certainly shoot the ball better from distance this season.

The recurring issue year in and year out for the Keydets is their atrocious transition defense, much of which has been due to the "Duggar-ball" style of play that has been instilled on this roster.  Now in Earl's 2nd season, the Keydets appear to be trending toward a better balance in their pace, which still allows plenty of freedom to make plays in the open floor, but should be more disciplined in getting back on defense.  However, the marginal strides made last year still won't be good enough if VMI's wants to play their way out of the basement in the SoCon standings.  In just his 2nd year on the sidelines, and with 5-6 incoming freshman expected to see immediate time, Earl is certainly thinking about the bigger picture as he assesses which young assets will form the future core of this VMI team.


9.     Western Carolina

Key Returners:  Elijah Pughsley
Key Losses:  Mike Brown, Torrion Brummitt, Rhett Harrelson
Key Newcomers: Deriece Parks (JUCO), Onno Steger, Adam Sledd, Jason McMillan, Maurice Smith, Yalim Olcay


Postseason Prediction: None

Similar to the aforementioned Keydets, Western Carolina will also showcase a ton of new faces in 2017.  The Catamounts will likely play 5 freshmen and 4 sophomores, compared to just six total upperclassmen.  The freshman unit is relatively well regarded and JUCO newcomer Deriece Parks should also provide some additional scoring production and reliable defense on the wing.

The undisputed leader for this group will be Devin Peterson, who spent most his time on the floor last season deferring to veterans Mike Brown, Torrion Brummitt, Justin Browning and Rhett Harrelson.  However, even in a reduced role, Peterson was still extremely inefficient as a sophomore, specifically as a ball handler and outside shooter.  Peterson, along with rising sophomore Elijah Pughsley, must not only improve as decision makers and scorers, but also provide more of an impact on the defensive end, given how critical it is that Larry Hunter's teams force turnovers to take pressure off of their half-court offense.  

The frontcourt may actually be more unproven than the backcourt, but a pair of rising sophomores in Marc Gosselin and Jesse Deloach showed signs of blossoming into reliable rebounders in limited action last season.  6'5 wing Haboubacar Mutombo will also get some run at the 4, who was arguably the most efficient of all the returning pieces offensively, albeit in minimal time.  

While Hunter has been optimistic about the upside of his freshmen class, a ton of uncertainty still persists for a team that will likely be hitting the reset button after a solid 10-8 showing in league play last year.


10.     The Citadel

Key Returners:  Warren Sledge, Quayson Williams
Key Losses:  Derrick Henry, Quinton Marshall, Tim Broom
Key Newcomers: Ezekiel Balogun, Frankie Johnson, Chris Ross, Kaelon Harris, Aaron Washington, Preston Parks, Leandro Allende


Postseason Prediction: None

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the land of "Duggar-ball" - a place where ideas such as "slowing it down" and "getting back on defense" are deemed unconstitutional with the tyrant ruler of Duggar Baucom sitting atop his throne.  

After spending almost a decade at in-conference military rival VMI, Duggar decided to take his talents to the beautiful destination of Charleston, SC prior to last season.  While most of the attention he's received is a product of his "revolutionary" style of basketball (refer to the astronomical avg # of possessions and 3s attempted per game), his unfiltered commentary has also generated some interesting sub-plots in the SoCon.  For example, after a verbal in-game feud between one of the Citadel's assistants and Chattanooga stud Tre McLean last year, Baucom described McLean as having no class and that he was "unfit to play at the Citadel".   So for those of you needing a reason to watch the worst team in the league play this year, I'd suggest tuning into the Citadel/Nooga and Citadel/VMI matchups for some potential fireworks.

Putting all of the off-the-court bogus aside, the Bulldogs are still years away from competing in the SoCon.  The main issue they dealt with last year was the absurd regression in their outside shooting, which is the one area the Citadel must excel at to make Duggar's system effective.  After shooting a blistering hot 40% from 3 as a team in 2014-15, the Bulldogs fell to a league worst 32% last year.  The major blow was the departure of freshman Jake Wright, who simply torched the nets last season, draining 46% of his trey bombs on a whopping 157 attempts.  His looks were spread around to less efficient outside shooters last year, as Warren Sledge was the only Bulldog to shoot better than 34% from behind the arc.  Given the absurdly high 3-point volume that comes with Duggar's 150 mph run-and-gun system, rising sophomores Quayson Williams and Matt Frierson will have to knock down outside shots this year at a higher clip to keep the Bulldogs competitive on a nightly basis. 

Many more unknowns lurk in the incoming freshmen class as Baucom continues to bring in players that fit his style of play.  Little Frankie Johnson was impressive in the Citadel's opening exhibition game a week ago, leading the way with 16 points for the Bulldogs.  Preston Parks and Kaelon Harris are the other two froshies worth mentioning, both of whom should each see significant minutes off the bench to start and could surely find themselves in the starting lineup by season's end.  Regardless of how much the freshmen and sophomore classes improve this year, until Duggar can show any sign of defensive competency, the Citadel will continue to rest safely at the bottom of the SoCon.